It has long been known that old stone walls have been everywhere throughout the New England States. In fact, in the 1930s, someone estimated that New England had 250,000 miles of stone walls. However, that number has since been doubled.
In the decades that followed, people began to wonder about the region’s hundreds of stone chambers. These distinctive stone structures, also called huts, caves, beehives, dolmens, and root cellars, have long provoked questions about their age and cultural origins.
America’s Stonehenge, Salem, New Hampshire
Calendar II, South Woodstock, Vermont
Gungywamp, Groton, Connecticut
Queen’s Fort, Exeter, Rhode Island
There is approximately 800 stone–built chambers scattered across the New England States that are of a design and form that have been found nowhere else in North America. Generally, they are in circular and rectangular forms that range from 15-30 feet long, are about 10 feet wide, and have a 10 feet tall central chamber. The most elaborate structures, called “beehive” chambers were built in a conical shape and sometimes feature smoke holes for ventilation, as well as shelves and benches incorporated into the walls. Most of the best-preserved chambers are driven into hillsides, though others are freestanding. Characteristically, they are expertly constructed with fitted masonry stone and capped with megalithic slabs. Surrounding these chambers are often found cairns, standing stones, enclosures, ceremonial walls, pedestal boulders, and balanced rocks.
Though the structures exhibit a number of common features, their construction details vary widely. But, they differ from other colonial structures including stone burial vaults, charcoal and lime kilns, potash burners, and iron furnaces.
These chambers have been found in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
Though many historians and archeologists believe these structures were built by early colonists as root cellars, or perhaps by Native Americans before them, others believe that some of these chambers are ancient, built by European travelers during the Bronze Age.
Intense public interest began after Professor Barry Fell, a retired marine biologist from Harvard University, undertook an examination of several areas in Vermont in the 1970s. Fell stated that he had identified inscriptions in an early form of Ogam script dating from 1000 B.C. to 300 B.C. carved in stone by “Celts from the Iberian Peninsula” located in the southwest corner of Europe in what is today’s Spain and Portugal.
The professor believed that these many megalithic chambers were built by the Celts who welcomed Phoenician mariners from the Mediterranean Sea. Further, he asserted that these structures, built along rivers in secluded valleys and on hilltops were erected by the priests (or Druids) for use as temples. Fell and others who support the idea of the ancient European settlement, also cite further evidence such as the use of stone circles, carved deities and animal figures, symbolic markings, Celtic place names, cairns, and chamber features that align with the sunset and sunrise during solar solstices and equinoxes. Further, the beehive-shaped stone chambers look very much like ancient chambers built by monks in Ireland.
However, Fell, who utilized his tenure at Harvard to pursue his hobby of alternative history, is not well respected by archeologists, which immediately led to controversy. The debate focuses on the two theories of historic origin or ancient origin.
Most believe that the structures were built by early colonists for use as root cellars, settlers’ quarters, smokehouses, shepherds’ shelters, animal pens, whiskey storage facilities, and hunting or trapping enclosures. However, this does not explain that early records of New England colonists make mention of stone chambers preexisting before they settled the land and also described in their writings, the existence of strange “Indian forts.” Nor does it explain that sometimes the age of the chamber could be authenticated by trees that predated settlement, that passageways were often too low and narrow to wheel a cart into, and the chambers’ having soil floors that would rot vegetables.
Further, why would practical-minded colonial farmers create such complex and well-crafted megalithic “root cellars” for simple use of their fruits and vegetables? Especially ones like these? While their homes and other buildings have long since vanished, these stone chambers still exist. Other researchers have presented the facts that the chambers were far too large for use for food storage and most colonists built root cellars underneath or near their homes instead of in the upland areas where most of them are found. And, why would these people have spent so much time and effort quarrying great amounts of stones and hauling them to these sites, when trees were abundant?
Though some have suggested they were built by Native Americans, this has long been generally discounted, as there is no archeological or ethnological evidence that prehistoric or historically known Indian groups undertook the level of stone construction represented by the stone chambers. Further, the Native Americans of the area were known to limit their use of upland areas where the vast majority of the chambers are located, to hunting and other short-term activities, and lived more permanently on river or lakeside environments. Additionally, nowhere in America were Native Americans known to have constructed sweat lodges made of stone.
However, many researchers today adamantly disagree and believe that the stone chambers were, in fact, built by American Indians or their ancient ancestors who lived in New England before the arrival of the first Europeans. Indigenous groups from other parts of America, such as the Adena and Mississippian cultures were known to have created entire cities and ceremonial centers with stone and dirt, so why not the structures in New England?
In the summer of 1974, Byron Dix discovered in Vermont the first of many areas in New England that he believed to be ancient Native American ritual sites. Later, he and James Mavor led a seven-year investigation into stone sites in New England. For 15 years they worked together researching and interpreting New England’s stone structures before publishing their findings in the book Manitou in 1889. Though neither author was a trained archaeologist, they showed that the Indians had more astronomical knowledge than had previously been acknowledged and that there is a wealth of archaeological remains in New England that had been ignored by archaeologists.
Manitou is the Algonquin word for God and is “the spiritual quality possessed by every part or aspect of nature, animate or inanimate…………. aspects of the natural world that are sensed but not understood.” This description is consistent with the way the early inhabitants of this continent regarded their surroundings.
The two told the story of the discovery and exploration of these many stone structures and standing stones, whose placement in the surrounding landscape suggests that they played an important role in celestial observation and shamanic ritual. Many of these ritual sites connect with other sites to form networks that stretch for hundreds of miles. The book’s general conclusion is that shamanism, vision-seeking, and careful solar and stellar observations were among the central motifs in the cultural beliefs of the natives who built them. The two also concluded that many of these sites were at least several thousand years old.
The authors, Mavor and Dix, were a naval architect and an optical-mechanical engineer, respectively. Dix is also an expert in archeo-astronomy.
Others support this theory including the Nolumbeka Project based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. This group, comprised of volunteers who have been active for more than 40 years in preservation and historical research, has a mission of promoting a deeper more accurate depiction of the Native American history of New England, as well as the protection of sacred sites.
Nolumbeka is an Abenaki word which means “a stretch of quiet water between the two rapids”. This word likely is the source of the name Norumbega, which was used by the early European explorers and appeared on maps for the area of present-day New England from 1529 to the 1580s.
Many previous researchers have given no credit to pre-colonial age or Indian interests and abilities. New England colonists, in general, were too busy farming or trying to convert and/or eliminate the Indians to learn about the natives’ knowledge of astronomy. Further, this cultural ignorance was perpetrated by English land speculators and by some Christian ministers whose goal, as worded by Reverend John Eliot was to “to convince, bridle, restrain and civilize” the Indians “and also to humble them”.
It is known that the Algonquian speaking tribes along with many other peoples throughout North America, viewed the universe as divided vertically into three major realms. These included the Upperworld which consisted of the sky, the earth itself called the Middleworld, and everything below ground was called the Underworld. Caves and underground chambers allowed them to go into the Underworld, which was filled with powerful spirits. Many tribes’ have origin stories and legends that have strong connections between the Underworld.
In the meantime, the mystery remains and speculation continues regarding the mysterious stone structures.
The heaviest concentration of these stone structures has been found in Putnam County, New York; New London County, Connecticut; and Windsor County, Vermont. Massachusetts has the densest concentration of beehive-shaped stone chambers and has a total of 105 astronomically aligned chambers statewide. Connecticut has 62, New Hampshire has 51, Vermont has 41, Rhode Island has 12, and Maine has four.
Some of these sites include:
America’s Stonehenge, Salem, New Hampshire
On a hilltop in New Hampshire near the Massachusetts border is an archaeological site called America’s Stonehenge. This 30-acre site in Salem, New Hampshire, is the largest collection of stone structures in North America, consisting of standing stones, stone walls, cairns, natural caves, horizontal stone slabs, rock circles, and stone chambers, has long puzzled archaeologists, astronomers, and historians.
For years these formations were assumed to be colonial root cellars, but in the late 1800s, a few archaeologists began speculating that the megalithic structures, similar to some types found in Europe, were the work of ancient European settlers. The haphazard collection of walls interspersed with tall, triangular–shaped standing stones on a hill sitting on about an acre of land, contains 22 stone chambers plus other megalithic features. In the central section is a T–shaped chamber with internal structures similar to a chimney and hearth, as well what appears to be a “couch” sculpted in the rock. From this shelf, a pipe–like hole called the “speaking tube” ascends to the surface. Surrounding the central site are upright stone monoliths that are said to be aligned to predict prominent astronomical sightings.
In 1936, the property was purchased by William Goodwin, an insurance executive and antiquity collector, who believed that the site was built by Culdee Monks from Ireland. He named the site Mystery Hill. In 1956 the property was bought by Robert Stone, who renamed it “America’s Stonehenge”, turned it into a tourist attraction, and began charging admission to see the monoliths. The site is still in the Stone family today.
A number of theories exist as to the origin and purpose of the structures. Some believe that the acreage was used by local farmers in the 18th and 19th centuries and that more structures were built by owner William Goodwin in the 1930s. Others claim that the site was built by a Native American culture or is of pre-Columbian European origin. The site itself says that it is over 4,000 years old and is most likely the oldest man-made construction in the United States. Believers in the ancient theory say that the chambers and rock formations were utilized collectively as some kind of religious ceremonial center as well as a celestial and astronomical observatory.
In 1975, marine biologist Barry Fell from Harvard University, who also visited stone chambers in Vermont, came to visit the site in New Hampshire. There, he found a tablet inside one of the chambers, which he said was carved with Ogam characters, a Celtic alphabetic system.
Several archaeological digs have been done in the area and thousands of artifacts have been found, all of which were Native American or 18th and 19th century in origin
Featured on the History Channel and other television programs, America’s Stonehenge remains controversial. It was described by Dr. Edward J. Kealy, professor of the History at Holy Cross University as “potentially the most important stone complex in the Northern Hemisphere.” But Professor Curtis Runnels, Professor of Archaeology at Boston University, scoffs at the assertion that it is a monument built by settlers from Europe in pre-Columbian Bronze Age times, stating that “No Bronze Age artifacts have been found there.”
Other archaeologists assert that because the area was altered so much by previous owner William Goodwin, who quarried and excavated the area and moved stones and structures around, that the site has been so compromised, that current archeologists can’t take it seriously.
The site is located at 105 Haverhill Road in Salem, New Hampshire. Visitors should take Exit 3 off I–93 to Route 111 and follow the signs from North Salem. It is open to the public daily for a fee as part of a recreational area which includes snowshoe trails and an alpaca farm.
Gungywamp, Groton, Connecticut
Located near the mouth of the Thames River outside of Groton, Connecticut, this archaeological site consists of a wide assortment of stone chambers, a stone circle, and artifacts that have been found that date from 2000-770 B.C.
The complex is located high atop an imposing cliff, situated above a swamp feeding a stream that connects to the Thames River. The site’s chambers are beehive in shape, includes a petroglyph image of a bird with outstretched wings, a double circle of stones, just north of two underground chambers, a number of megaliths, and cairns. To some, the stone circle suggests its use as an astronomical observatory. The largest underground chamber at Gungywamp is called the “calendar chamber” because it features an astronomical alignment. The large quarried stones have been carbon dated to 600 A.D.
Archaeological excavations at the site have confirmed the presence of humans at the site over the past 4,000 years. It is also known that there was a settlement by white farmers after 1780, and the site was also utilized from time to time by Native Americans.
The word “Gungywamp” was originally thought to be an Indian word, but also translates in Gaelic meaning “Church of the People.”
A letter dated November 30, 1654, by John Pynchon, who founded Springfield, Massachusetts, lends strong support to the idea that many stone structures existed here before the colonists arrived. A portion of his letter reads:
“Honored Sir, Understanding you are now at New Haven and supposing there will be opportunity from Hartford for conveyance thither, I make bold to scribble a few lines to you… Sir, I hear a report of a stonewall and strong fort (chamber) within it, made all of stone, which is newly discovered at or near Pequet (present-day Gungywamp Range), I should be glad to know the truth of it from your self, here being many strange reports about it.”
This 100-acre site is located in the wooded hills outside of Groton just off Gungywamp Road.
Upton Chamber, Upton, Massachusetts
The largest and best best-known chamber in Massachusetts is the Upton Stone Chamber in Upton. It is one of the largest and most precisely built beehive chambers in New England.
Carved into the side of a hill, a six-foot-high, 14-foot-long tunnel leads into a beehive-shaped domed chamber of quarried stone measuring about 12-feet across and 11-feet high. The cave is topped with several large oval stones believed to weigh over ten thousand tons each. The precisely fitted rocks of a dry stone masonry have held up well over the years. The floor of Upton is currently comprised of rotted wood planking covering flagstones. Interestingly, virtually no artifacts have been found inside the Upton Chamber.
Some say the chamber is aligned to observe the setting solstice sun and stars of the Pleiades, as marked by large stone piles located on nearby Pratt Hill. On this hill, several cairns are located near the summit.
The chamber and the nearby stone cairns on Pratt Hill are both listed on the National Historic Register. The chamber is located in Upton Heritage Park at 18 Elm Street. The town of Upton is located about 12 miles southeast of Worcester.
Calendar II, South Woodstock, Vermont
Eastern Vermont has some of the densest concentrations of ancient stone structures in North America, most of which are located in Orange and Windsor Counties. The Calendar II chamber in South Woodstock is one of the biggest and best-known Stone Chambers in New England. It is called the Calendar chamber because of its Winter Solstice alignment.
The chamber measures 10 feet wide by 20 feet long and the door aligns with the solstice sunrise. Its roof is comprised of seven massive lintel stones that span its width, the largest of which is estimated to weigh approximately three tons. A flue hole in the ceiling is located at the back of the chamber. A natural spring runs under the chamber, which would make it a sacred or holy site in some cultures and religions.
Down the road near South Royalton, Vermont is the Calendar I site, which is comprised of eight stone chambers, 14 standing stones, five cairn groupings, and many other stone structures. These two sites are 14 miles apart but exist on a perfect north/south alignment accurate to within 200 feet.
In 1975, Dr. Barry Fell, a retired marine biologist from Harvard, visited the site and announced that he had found inscriptions in a dead Celtic language called Ogam. Dr. Fell concluded that the carvings were made by Celts from the Iberian Peninsula who carved them around 1000 BC. Critics, however, counter Fell’s claims because no other evidence of European visitors has ever been found in the area.
Archeoastronomer Byron Dix also explored the site in the 1970s, determining that it was built by Native Americans as a ritual site.
May say that these chambers are nothing more than colonial root cellars. However, Vermont farmers have told stories of uncovering these stone chambers since colonial times. In 1977, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation studied the stone chambers and concluded that they did not serve as stone burial vaults, charcoal or lime kilns, potash burners or iron furnaces.
Queen’s Fort, Exeter, Rhode Island
Queen’s Fort is a legendary Indian fortification located in northeast Exeter, Rhode Island.
Standing at the crest of a wooded hill, the structure consisted of dry-laid stone walls set between groups of glacial boulders. The fort is traditionally associated with a Narragansett sachem of the 17th century named Queen Quaiapen and a Narragansett man known to the English as Stonewall John. Stonewall John was a talented mason who is said to have built the fort along with other Narragansett men loyal to Queen Quaiapen for defense purposes during King Phillip’s War. Some accounts say that Quaiapen and Stonewall John were lovers.
The fort was said to have included bastions of stone construction with a chamber in the middle. Located just west of the fort was a large cavern formed by groups of boulders known as the Queen’s Bed Chamber.
The fort was the site of the first punitive raids against the Narragansett Indians in December 1675 when shots were fired and colonists burned supplies of corn that the Narragansett had put away for winter. A short time later on December 19, 1675, what is known as the Great Swamp Massacre occurred at the Narragansett village when it was attacked by colonial militiamen from Plymouth Colony, Connecticut Colony, and Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was described as “one of the most brutal and lopsided military encounters in all of New England’s history.”
In the end, the settlement was burned, its inhabitants, including women and children, were killed or evicted, and most of the tribe’s winter stores were destroyed. Though hundreds were killed, some escaped into the frozen swamp where more died from wounds or the harsh winter conditions. The Queen was one of those who managed to escape but was later killed by Connecticut soldiers when she tried to escape north in July 1676.
Afterward, the fort was said to have been utilized by bandits and hermits.
Today the site is owned by the Rhode Island Historical Society and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. However, the years have taken their toll and it is little more than a round, rocky hillock.
Some believe that the stonework actually predated Queen Quaiapen.
The only one of these structures that is open to the public is America’s Stonehenge. The others are situated on private land and permission is needed to access them.
Like other New England stone chambers, its builders remain a mystery.
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, January 2019.
Astronomy and Mythology in Native American Culture
Mavor, James W., Jr., and Byron, E. Dix, Manitou – The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization, Inner Traditions International, 1989
New England Historical Society